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Meet the Woman Making Sure the World Design Capital Has Business Cards

To the casual observer, there are plenty of indicators that Cape Town, South Africa deserves its title as "2014 World Design Capital": chic...

To the casual observer, there are plenty of indicators that Cape Town, South Africa deserves its title as "2014 World Design Capital": chic coffee shops with minimalist typography proliferate the city, a once disused bowling green is now an artfully laid-out organic farm, and the Woodstock Exchange's breezy open-air space feels delightfully incongruous in the industrial neighborhood where it sits.

The biennial WDC title, given by the International Council of Societies and Industrial Design, seeks to highlight metropolises that use design as a "tool to make cities more competitive, attractive, livable, and efficient." But when you probe a little deeper in Cape Town, one of the WDC's most prominent aims— bridging the divide between "first and third worlds, town and township, advantaged and disadvantaged"—isn’t so clearly met. Most of the design-related projects, talks, and exhibitions take place in the cosmopolitan Central Business District, far away from where most of the city's non-white population lives.

While Cape Town officials may be enjoying increased international attention and tourism revenue thanks to its WDC title, local designers are trying to do something about the disparity between the city and its outer-lying townships. Twenty-two year old graphic designer Natasha Viljoen did so by turning her attention to the traffic light. Pull up to a red light in Cape Town and it's common to see unemployed individuals walking car to car looking for work. Cut off from the formal job market due to lack of education and resources, the only way these individuals can connect with potential customers is by distributing hand-written business cards to drivers.

Heartened by this sense of entrepreneurship, Viljoen started the H?’l? Project, which was featured at last month’s prestigious Design Indaba. Collaborating with entrepreneurs that she meets throughout Cape Town, she uses her design skills to create business cards, logos, and brand identities that adds to their sense of professionalism. The intention is to use the elements of artful design and visual marketing to reach more potential customers and increase business.

Viljoen has worked with a variety of entrepreneurs, including a handy man, a furniture re-upholsterer, and a sculptor/artist who creates “gift cycles” or bicycle sculptures out of recycled materials. While their work differs, they all share a lack of access to the primary means that most entrepreneurs use to attract business.

Data collected in 2013 suggests that less than 10 percent of South African households have access to the Internet at home. Viljoen said the reality of this hit her when one of her clients explained that posting an ad on Gumtree (a website similar to Craigslist) would be futile for him in terms of finding business. Without a website, brand identity, or online reputation, it’s unlikely that someone would hire him.

While race still lies at the crux of many problems of access in South Africa, Viljoen says that’s not what her project is about.

“My project isn’t about race—it’s about branding and making design accessible. My clients can be anyone.”

Viljoen is seeking funding to create a self-sustaining model in which things like printing costs and web domains are subsidized by outside funding and she earns commission from any business that results from her branding efforts. She says it's also important to help her clients develop a web presence, whether by hosting a series of simple webpages within an umbrella website for the project, or developing unique websites for each.

“The big thing for me is people taking responsibility for themselves and realizing that design for change does not necessarily have to come from creatives. It is something everyone can interact with.”

Images courtesy of Flickr and Natasha Viljoen.

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